Western politicians and officials, particularly those from Britain and the United States, are unanimous in accusing Beijing of violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in December 1984 by Britain and China. The absence of popular elections for the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Legislative Council as well as the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong by the National People’s Congress in June 2020 are often cited as examples of Beijing’s “breaking” its promise to democratize Hong Kong and “trampling” on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom.
Interestingly, no Western politician or official has pinpointed any article or part of the Joint Declaration which has been breached by Beijing. Even more tellingly, Britain, as the co-signer of the Joint Declaration, has not launched any formal diplomatic protest to, nor requested diplomatic negotiation with, Beijing over the alleged “breaching” of the Joint Declaration.
The British insist that the Joint Declaration is a valid legal document even after the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Accordingly, Britain not only has a legal and moral responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, but also has the right to hold Beijing accountable for its policies and actions toward Hong Kong after 1997. From Beijing’s point of view, the Joint Declaration is a document which deals solely with the reversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Annex I in the Joint Declaration is essentially a unilateral elaboration of the basic policies regarding Hong Kong by the government of the People’s Republic of China. Since these basic policies have been completely incorporated in the Basic Law promulgated in 1990, and the Basic Law has been faithfully observed after 1997, China has fulfilled its obligations under the Joint Declaration. Thus, the Joint Declaration became a politically and legally irrelevant document after 1997.
Beijing’s actions have violated neither the Joint Declaration nor the Basic Law. On the contrary, it is the uncooperativeness of Britain and the ulterior motives behind it before 1997 that have breached the Joint Declaration at least in spirit and brought about the consequences which it and its allies are protesting today
Up to now, the chief executive of the HKSAR and the Legislative Council have not been popularly elected, but that cannot be construed as Beijing’s not abiding by the Joint Declaration. The Joint Declaration only stipulates that the “chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.” The terms “popular election” or “universal franchise” are nowhere to be found in the document. Electoral arrangements for the Legislative Council only appear in Annex I of the Joint Declaration in these words: “The legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by elections.” Again, there is no mention of “popular election”.
It is the Basic Law which stipulates that “popular elections” for the chief executive and the Legislative Council will eventually be held in post-1997 Hong Kong. The Basic Law sets no timeline for them. It only mentions that the methods for selecting the chief executive and the legislature shall be specified in light of the actual situation in the HKSAR and that the principle of gradual and orderly progress should be observed. As such, the absence of popular elections in Hong Kong today does not amount to breaching the Joint Declaration or the Basic Law.
The Joint Declaration has nothing to say about the duty of Hong Kong to protect national security. Presumably, at the time the Joint Declaration was written, both Britain and China considered that it was the responsibility of Beijing to enact the necessary national security laws to provide the legal means for the HKSAR to safeguard national security. Nevertheless, during the drafting of the Basic Law, Beijing decided that it was more politically expedient to take the exceptional step of empowering the HKSAR to enact the necessary local laws to protect national security, and that is the reason why Article 23 was attached to the Basic Law. Beijing has never relinquished its power to enact the necessary national security laws for Hong Kong if the latter fails to discharge its duty to protect national security. As the central government of China, which is ultimately responsible for protecting national security, it is inconceivable that Beijing could not do anything and be at the mercy of Hong Kong when Hong Kong becomes a source of national security threats. Therefore, during 2019-20, when the violent unrest in Hong Kong, which was instigated by both internal and external hostile forces, posed a serious national security threat to the country, and Hong Kong had yet to enact laws on its own to give effect to Article 23 of the Basic Law 23 years after returning to the motherland, the central government perforce took action directly. The result is the NSL. Beijing should not be faulted for fulfilling its inescapable responsibility and duty to safeguard national security. By the same token, Beijing should not be accused of violating the Joint Declaration by the Western nations.
It is Britain which should be blamed for violating the Joint Declaration in spirit if not necessarily the letter. During the long transition period between 1984 and 1997, the colonial government of Hong Kong acted in ways which made it difficult to implement the “one country, two systems” principle comprehensively and accurately. The inability of the HKSAR to enact local laws to give effect to Article 23 of the Basic Law and the difficulty of the HKSAR to undergo step-by-step democratization are the victims of those actions.
According to the Joint Declaration, “The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that, during the transitional period between the date of the entry into force of this Joint Declaration and 30 June 1997, the Government of the United Kingdom will be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong with the object of maintaining and preserving its economic prosperity and social stability; and that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will give its cooperation in this connection.” Implicit in this statement is that Britain would work closely with China in making sure that colonial Hong Kong would morph into the HKSAR smoothly and seamlessly. Many British officials time and again pledged that Britain would work cooperatively with China toward this end. In practice, the British failed to keep their solemn pledges.
Britain held a different view of “one country, two systems”, seemingly seeing and expecting the HKSAR to be an “independent political entity” under Chinese sovereignty. Accordingly, in the transitional period, the British undertook various political, administrative and legal reforms to transfer powers to the Hong Kong people, particularly to those who harbored “anti-China”, “anti-communist”, pro-British and pro-Western proclivities. Accordingly, only the “democratic activists”, who were marginal political forces in colonial Hong Kong and had been held in suspicion by the colonial government, were able to meet these criteria. These opposition forces were actively encouraged, cultivated and grown by the British and hence became the dominant political force in Hong Kong on the eve of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. Most importantly, after the June 4 event in Beijing in 1989, the British reckoned that it was highly likely that the rule of the Communist Party of China would come to an end soon. Therefore, there was no need to abide by the secret agreement reached with Beijing on the eve of the promulgation of the Basic Law regarding the electoral methods for the Legislative Council and the District Councils in 1994-95. To build up the opposition forces in Hong Kong and to hamper the development of the patriotic forces, the colonial government tore up that secret agreement and, unilaterally and in defiance of Beijing’s opposition, imposed its own electoral arrangements on the city, causing the political reform “through train” to derail.
The rise of the powerful “anti-China” and “anti-communist” opposition forces before 1997 and their enormous political clout in the HKSAR made it impossible for Hong Kong to enact local laws to protect national security as required by the Basic Law. The entry of the opposition forces through elections in the governing system of the HKSAR rendered governance ineffective and made it impossible to tackle the serious social and economic problems of Hong Kong. At the same time, these opposition forces attempted to use Hong Kong as a base of subversion against Beijing. Over the past decade, they became increasingly radical and, in collusion with external forces, even sought to take over the HKSAR regime by launching a “color revolution”. In these dire circumstances, the enactment of the NSL for Hong Kong and the radical reform of the electoral system of Hong Kong, which together make it impossible for the “anti-China” and “anti-communist” forces to operate in Hong Kong, should be understood as Beijing’s sincere and unavoidable efforts to rescue “one country, two systems” and render its practice in line with the original design as created by Beijing back in the early 1980s.
The reluctance of the British to work together with China to make for a smooth transition from colonial Hong Kong to the HKSAR and their efforts to groom and grow the “anti-China” and “anti-communist” forces before 1997 are the major reasons Beijing had to eventually take draconian measures to bring “one country, two systems” back on the right track. Beijing’s actions have violated neither the Joint Declaration nor the Basic Law. On the contrary, it is the uncooperativeness of Britain and the ulterior motives behind it before 1997 that have breached the Joint Declaration at least in spirit and brought about the consequences which it and its allies are protesting today.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.